Sabre’s entrance into the escalating dispute over American Airlines ticket sales could leave "travel agents in the crosshairs and up the creek without a paddle," the Association of Retail Travel Agents said.

"The sniping and rhetoric emanating from this very public and troubling disagreement has to stop — now," ARTA vice chair Sally Watkins said in a statement. “ARTA fully supports the Open Axis Group's call for industry dialogue on these issues. Until we have open and transparent discourse on the underlying dispute, travel agents will continue to face an uncertain future as to distribution tools and all-important content access."

The Open Axis Group is an airline organization advocating XML as the standard messaging structure in electronic distribution. Its founding members are Air Canada, American, Continental, Delta, United and US Airways.

Sabre on Wednesday announced plans to terminate its contract with Sabre in August and to immediately downgrade AA listings and increase segment fees in response to American’s push to implement its Direct Connect booking service.

ARTA said Sabre's plans "will very likely result in surcharges passed on to agencies by AA in much the same way as in the ongoing similar dispute with GDS-owner Travelport. By bringing U.S. agents into the fray, the dynamics and levels of tolerance among agents, GDSs and AA (and likely other airlines) will disintegrate even more rapidly."

The battle began when American on Dec. 21 pulled its flights from Orbitz over its refusal to use the airline's Direct Connect booking system.

Orbitz’s biggest shareholder, Travelport, said that using Direct Connect would cost Orbitz more money while reducing the segment fees it could earn and the transparency of its search results.  

Shortly afterward, Expedia buried American's content in its booking engine, then eliminated AA fares altogether on Jan. 1.

Both sides in the Sabre-American dispute accuse the other of pushing systems that are anti-consumer and anti-choice.

"Sabre’s actions are discriminatory and patently inconsistent with both its contractual obligations and its professed goal of ensuring full transparency for the benefit of consumers and travel agents," American said. "In contrast, the actions only serve to protect Sabre’s market position and attempt to force airlines and travel agencies to rely exclusively on its legacy systems that only lead to higher fares and fewer choices for consumers."

Analysts expect the high-stakes skirmish will be resolved — at least in the short term.

The entrance of Sabre into the fray is "huge," said Douglas Quinby of travel research firm PhoCusWright. "This is not what I think American wants. They do not want to be suddenly so disadvantaged across what is still a very important distribution channel."

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